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Teacher trust at heart of salary negotiations

Cory Fisher

Spokespersons for Lake Tahoe Unified School District teachers assert that salary negotiations with the district have a slim chance of moving forward until trust is restored between the two parties.

Members of the South Tahoe Educators Association allege that statements made by the administration have not painted an accurate picture of budget and negotiation practices to the public.

“There are big, unresolved issues between the two groups,” said South Tahoe High School math teacher and negotiating team member Sue Channel. “We’re hoping that management will take a sincere look at these issues in hopes of resolving them and re-establishing trust – the tone and the misleading quotes made in the (March 16) Tribune article may just have served to alienate the teachers more.”

Among several statements that raised the ire of more than a few teachers was the suggestion that there may be a lack of solidarity between teachers and their own negotiating team. A tentative agreement reached between both teams was recently voted down by 82 percent of STEA members.

“(The comment) about teachers not trusting their own negotiating team does not speak for me or certainly any other teacher I’ve spoken to,” said Jim Rollins, Tahoe Valley fourth-grade teacher. “On the contrary, our team did exactly what they were supposed to do. They brought back to us an offer from the district – supposedly the district’s best offer. We turned it down as a voting block – but they did exactly what they’re supposed to do – bring it to us so we can vote on it.”

Business Manager Ralph Johnson says his interpretation of the process is different.

“My understanding is when both management and certificated reach an agreement it’s saying that we’ve studied the issue and this is the best solution we could reach as a team,” Johnson said. “The essence of an interest-based approach is meeting both sides’ interests – they had the option not to agree to what we agreed to.”

“Agreements are tentative until accepted by the teachers,” said negotiating chairman and speech therapist Steve Hall. “The STEA negotiations team feels that 100 percent of its members support them – there is not a trust issue between teachers and their negotiating team.”

Channel said STEA members also took issue with the superintendent’s assertion that the district has offered “in essence a 6.55 percent raise – 4.55 percent plus the additional 2 percent that teachers get for moving ahead on the salary schedule.”

If the agreement had been approved, said Channel, teachers would have realized a 4.55-percent salary increase, with a cost to the district of 4.15 percent due to savings from insurance costs.

In terms of the additional 2 percent the administration says teachers will receive in salary schedule increases, STEA President Mike Patterson argues that step-and-column increases are “nowhere near 2 percent – we have done the numbers on what it will cost.”

“Step-and-column are not considered raises because they’re granted to teachers for going back to school and for years of experience,” Patterson said. “Even during the recession in the 1970s, when there was a salary freeze, the National Labor Relations Board decided that step-and-column should still be granted. It’s a promised increase.”

Patterson, a high school teacher, cited himself as an example.

“I spent $5,000 going back to school to go from 60 to 75 units, and it’s made me a better teacher,” he said. “We teachers have paid out of our own pockets to get our step-and-column – to call it a raise isn’t right.”

“Here’s how it works,” said Channel. “Some teachers will move over a column if they have taken classes. Some will move up a step for working a certain number of years. All of these teachers will receive an increase in their salaries. But many teachers will not receive any step and column. If management considers this a 6.55-percent raise, then they need to re-calculate how much of a ‘raise’ managers got in 1996.”

In 1995-96, salary negotiations resulted in a 3-percent raise and a 2-percent bonus for all classified, certificated and management employees, Hall said.

Later that year, however, the board approved an additional 3.5-percent increase for all certificated managers who had been in their position for eight or more years.

“Most certificated managers qualified for this increase,” Hall said. “But this (3.5 percent) was not offered or made known to the other two groups. The teachers were led to believe that all three employee groups would receive equal increases. We believe management’s undisclosed increase defies the tenet of interest-based bargaining.”

“We found it in the data sheet while crunching our own numbers,” Channel said. “Some STEA members wonder if (this information) was intentionally withheld.”

Although teachers later successfully negotiated an extra column for those who earn 75 semester units or more, Channel said the teachers’ increase was 0.6 percent less than that of the managers.

Johnson says that because certificated managers have no collective bargaining rights, any increases they receive are done by way of a very different procedure – a recommendation to the board from the superintendent.

“Their working conditions could change at the will of the superintendent – they have no protection and could be gone tomorrow,” Johnson said. “There is no general understanding as to how managers deal with the district – theirs don’t automatically parallel other wage increases. This information was not shared at the table, but it’s not required to be shared.”

“There is a trust issue here,” Channel said. “In order to fund their column, teachers had to agree to take less of a salary raise than managers. Managers received a 3.6-percent increase while STEA members received a 3-percent salary increase – although some also received an extra column.”

But Channel said the difference in monies may only be part of the problem.

“Teachers wonder why they weren’t told about the step,” she said. “They feel they’re not respected. They feel they’re being treated poorly when compared to other employees of the district. The quotes in the article confirm this. Management appears to accuse the teachers of being unreasonable.”

While the district’s business manager estimated that most teachers are at a “Step 10,” which would rank them ninth out of 21 comparable districts in terms of salaries and benefits, Channel contends that only about one of three teachers are at or above this salary.

“The fair marker is to use average salary and benefits – here we compare 16th out of 21. When we look at salary alone, we compare at 20 out of 21.”

Johnson said the salary average has gone down since the district hired new teachers for class-size reduction, and that in terms of the bargaining staff per student ratio, LTUSD ranks fifth. “We’ve made choices in the past to have more staff and fewer students per staff than some of these other districts.”

“Before class-size reduction we were still near the bottom,” Patterson said. “Other comparable districts’ averages have also gone down.”

Both parties have expressed a desire to take negotiations back behind closed doors.

“It seems to me that it’s unproductive to be debating these issues in the press – it appears to me that everyone wants to put their particular spin on these issues,” said Superintendent Rich Alexander. “The best way to address this would be at the negotiation table and the district is ready to do that.”

Patterson concurs.

“We also prefer not to negotiate in the press,” he said. “But we feel compelled to respond to information we believe is misleading.”

A new round of negotiations is scheduled for Wednesday.

“Interest-based bargaining is supposed to be an open sharing of information,” Channel said. “We still want to negotiate in a professional, respectful way – we’re still hopeful we can re-establish trust.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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